Please mind the ability gap

Glass half empty?

Many potential Risus players seem to be put off by the death spiral mechanics that form the basis of its conflict resolution system. These are usually blamed for making combat one-sided, with most fights decided in the first round or even before a fight begins. In point of fact the real culprit is the large ability gap between player characters with different numbers of cliché dice. If you switch to an alternative dice mechanic that softens the ability gap, fights are not quite so one-sided.

The ability gap is so big that even a 1-die difference between opponents pretty much decides a fight, with the weaker characters chance of winning reduced to a reasonably improbable fluke. Unless opponents are evenly matched, the number of dice they have has more impact on the outcome than rolling them. Even if opponents are evenly matched, one of them will have less dice next round and the fight will be largely decided.

While the level of determinism caused by the ability gap sounds like a flaw it has some rather powerful benefits that make it a feature. The ability gap influences every form of action resolution in Risus so these benefits apply across the entire system.

Glass half full!

While dice deliver the occasional fluke win, their principle function in Risus is to resolve ties. If your character is outmatched winning often boils down to resource management involving lucky shots, pumping, cliché switching, teaming up and so on. Very few roleplaying games exhibit this level of determinism or rely quite so heavily on resource management. Those that do are mostly diceless roleplaying games. Despite the buckets of dice that get rolled, Risus has many of the strengths of diceless games and none of the weaknesses: it doesn’t pointlessly get rid of the dice.

The determinism of Risus influences the way players think about getting into fights, or indeed any form of conflict - from a game of Tiddly Winks with the Grim Reaper to a pitched battle with Windows (7). When a fight is looming in Risus players can usually guess what the outcome is going to be before getting really stuck in. This encourages players to use clever tactics, prudent resource management, artful weaseling or actual roleplaying (heaven forefend) to level the playing field.

Similarly if your character ends up in a fight and loses the first round, you know they are screwed before they are dead. This means you can actually do something about it. In fact you have to, because the ability gap means that hoping for some good rolls is simply not a solution. Running away screaming like a little girl works far better – unless your character is a little girl.

The ability gap makes chance something of a choice in Risus. While there’s always the possibility of a fluke, if you have the resources you can choose even odds over a probable failure or probable success over even odds. Diceless games don’t offer that and neither do most dicealicious games. 

S. John Ross has indicated that the 20th anniversary edition of Risus will use a highest die mechanic instead of the current dice pool mechanic. This will soften the ability gap considerably and address the incessant griping - but possibly at a price.

Risus Tosser

You can explore the impact of determinism and resource management on all forms of action resolution in Risus by running a session using the Risus Tosser system outlined below:

  1. The character with the highest number of cliché dice always wins a single action conflict or combat round.
  2.  Ties are resolved with a single coin toss by the player: heads you win, tails you lose.
  3. Target numbers are replaced with static clichés like Dodgy Curry (4), Sturdy Lock (3) or Craggy Cliff (2) and dealt with like single action conflicts.
  4. Allies contribute a third of their dice rounded normally to the team leaders total.
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